Program aims to put Ph.D.’s in legislative offices

*Minor factual changes have been made to this article since it was originally published

If a bill by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, keeps moving forward, 10 legislative offices will be hosting science Ph.D.’s by this fall.

His AB 573 would allow these “science fellows” to be paid out of a fund managed by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST). Current law requires that legislative employees be paid by the state. The Senate and Assembly Fellows program satisfies this requirement by paying fellows through Sacramento State University.

The goal, said CCST director Susan Hackwood, is to provide a professional development program for the fellows who would then benefit state policymakers with their expertise.

“The state is already so far ahead of other states in dealing with complex scientific and technical issues,” Hackwood said. “There was a realization that having extra feet on the ground would be helpful.”

Many questions remain unanswered, such as how the participants will be selected and assigned to offices. Another is what they will actually do while they’re there. These issues are being figured out by the program’s selection committee, which met near the San Francisco Airport on Monday, in consultation with the Rules Committee in each house.

“How are you going to deal with a potentialy diversity of opinion?” asked Assembly Rules Committee chief administrative officer Jon Waldie. “Are we going to get into a ‘my scientist is smarter than your scientist’ type issue?”

“Their job is to produce the right information,” Hackwood said. “They are not going to be lobbying for particular legislation.”

In order to help teach academics to deal with the chaotic day-to-day world of legislative politics, the winning candidates will go through a three week “boot camp” in the first three weeks of November to teach them about the legislative process and working within members’ offices. Freshman legislators go through a similar, though shorter program upon taking office.

Some have also raised the question of why the Foundation is spending money to put scientists into legislative offices when the agencies on the executive side that do science as their main focus are starving for funds. One office under the California Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, was targeted for elimination under Schwarzenegger’s budget plan, while others face steep cutbacks.

Hackwood said that if the program is successful, it could be expanded later.

“To start with the Legislature and Executive all together would be a huge job,” she said. “The Legislature has far fewer people who have this kind of science and technology training.”

The nonprofit CCST was created by the Legislature two decades ago as a 501c3 based on the same model used to create the National Academy of Sciences. Its board includes representatives from both state-run and private universities in California, but its status is intended to preserve its independence.

The science fellows program is modeled after a similar program by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has been placing fellows in Congressional offices for 35 years. The California program would be the first state government level program of its kind, Hackwood said. She added that several states have also been looking at the idea, including Arizona, New York, Texas and Washington.

The idea of the program has been brewing for at least four years, Hackwood said. What really got it off the ground was a $3.5 million donation last year from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The San Francisco-based foundation was founded by co-founder of computer microchip maker Intel. It handed out $134 million in donations last year alone, mainly to scientific entities, including several California-based universities.

“The grant is intended to provide unbiased, non-partisan science and technology expertise for policymakers, when they want it, to be used to help in their decision-making,” said Moore Foundation spokeswoman Genny Biggs.

S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, a private foundation that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math education and environmental issues, gave another $1 million. The foundation was created by Stephen  Bechtel, Jr., who retired as chairman of the engineering firm in 1990. Donors including the Kingfisher Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation and the TOSA Foundation have paid in smaller amounts to bring the total fund to $6.4 million. Hackwood said they are seeking another $900,000, which would give them the funds to guarantee the program for five years.

The application period for the first class ended on May 29, with 113 applicants for 10 slots. These included a variety of disciplines, with applicants ranging from those just out of doctoral programs to mid-career Ph.D.’s Each would receive a stipend of $45,000 for the year.

“That’s not very much money at all for the level of education you’re looking for,” noted Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Los Angeles, when Portantino, who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee, presented the bill in the Senate Rules Committee on June 24. She went on to say that she hoped the program would consider racial diversity when selecting candidates.

Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, raised a different set of concerns—that he was skeptical of what “ivory tower” academics could bring to the Legislature. He said he would prefer to have master’s level people who had skills from the business world, such as competitive bidding.

“I see it as a really negative to the criterion when you use a Ph.D. as the level you want to go for,” Aanestad said.

Nevertheless, Aanestad voted to approve the bill. On June 3, it passed off the Assembly floor 78-0.

The Rules Committee also featured a humorous exchange when Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, called the program a “gift.”

“The gist of the bill actually is clarifying that the presence of these folks doesn’t constitute a gift, so they can function here in a quasi-employee way,” replied Senate Rules executive officer Greg Schmidt.

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